Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"It's policy"

Every organization has to establish a whole array of policies, procedures, priorities, rules and regulations.  We all know this; at work we count on it, we rely on some set of guidelines telling us what to do under the normal circumstances we encounter.  And under abnormal circumstances, when things aren't going smoothly, we count on someone having anticipated whatever difficulty we find ourselves in.  We count on there being a rule. Having policies in place makes things run more smoothly.

But when we're customers, consumers, clients, in circumstances where we're interacting with some big organization, like a business, a government agency, a university, when we're trying to get something done, nothing can be more annoying than to be told "our policy is. . . ." Especially when that policy conflicts with whatever it is we're trying to get done.  Especially if we have good reason to believe we're in the right.  So when someone says "it's not our policy to give you that refund, it's not our policy to let you skip that step, it's not our policy to solve your problem," it's beyond annoying, it's infuriating.  And it's at that point that you have to find the One Person who can get you what you want.

That's how I came to graduate from college. Fall of '83, I graduated from BYU, sort of.  I was accepted to grad school at Indiana, moved my family from Provo to Bloomington, started my classes.  It was that point, fall of '83, that I got a letter from BYU.  They'd done a records review, and it turns out, I never did take freshman English.  I wrote back, and said that I'd been told that I didn't need to.  I'd taken English 251 (I still remember the course number), gotten an A, and that qualified as the equivalent for freshman English.  Weeks passed; they wrote back.  Turns out that the year I entered BYU, English 251 could not be used to replace freshman English.  It replaced it every year before, and every year afterwards, but not that one year. Policy: it didn't count.

They said I could appeal.  I did.  Appeal turned down.  So I asked if I could test out of freshman English (I was, after all, in grad school).  They said I could, if my bishop in Indiana would proctor the test.  So I went to my bishop and said "Dad, would you proctor this test for me?"  He did, I took it, got a 98.  Few weeks later, got another letter.  I'd gotten a 98, true.  But the test was in seven parts.  I'd gotten 100 on six of them, an 89 on the seventh.  Policy was, you had to score over 90 on all seven parts.  I had still not passed freshman English.  At that point, my only recourse was to move back to Provo, re-enroll at BYU, and take stupid @*^#&*^$(@#&(@^#(@$^*@&*)! freshman English. 

I was living in Indiana, in grad school at IU.  I absolutely did not want to move back to Provo for one ridiculous class.  I wrote to everyone I could think of.  No help.  Finally, someone suggested I appeal directly to the Chair of the English department.  I called, and his secretary answered--he was in a meeting.  We chatted, I explained my story--in three part harmony, with guitars and drums and an entire string section accompaniment--and it turned out she'd heard about it.  All those letters.  Then she said "seems to me, if that 89 could be changed to a 90, your problem would be solved.  Let me see if I can do that."  Incredulous, I asked, "you can do that?"  "I don't know," she said.  "Never tried."  Then I heard this 'beep' from a computer.  And she said "Congratulations, Mr. Samuelsen!  You just graduated from BYU!" 

That's the trick.  That's the secret.  If you want something from a company and what you want isn't policy, you need to find The One Person who can make it happen.  And it's not always the CEO.  Often, it's a secretary or administrative assistant, who knows how things work and how to solve problems.  Of course, a lot of the time, you'll run into people who are just determined to follow policy, period, end of story, them's the rules and bad luck to you. In which case, you keep after it.  Keep looking, until you find someone who isn't bound by policy.

A few years ago, we got a ridiculous bill from A T & T.  We'd switched carriers, and there'd been some computer glitch; they were charging us eighteen dollars a minute for in-state long distance.  That meant that an eight minute phone call from my wife to her sister in Salt Lake cost $144.00.  Called, fixed the problem, no problem.  Next month, we got another bill, for over $400.  Same thing, a few short calls to Salt Lake.   Called A T & T, and it turned out, they had a policy--they would fix that specific problem once, but not twice.  I owed them $400. 

It took three hours, during which time I was transferred to nine different people.  I kept my cool, just kept politely explaining my problem and what I wanted them to do about it.  Here's the key--some folks just don't have the authority to do anything about a stupid policy.  It's not that they don't want to help you, they can't.  So ask to speak to their supervisor.  One woman was rude--she was the Rules Nazi type.  They had a policy: sorry.  But even she told me something valuable--there were lots of people she was dealing with that day with the same problem I had.

Finally, I got a vice-President.  We went through it.  She finally agreed to override the policy, and zero out the bill.  "But," she said, "that's it.  If you get another bill like this next month, you will have to pay it."  "It's your computer problem," I replied. "If I get another bill next month, I promise, I will call you again."  I pointed out that I wasn't the only person having that problem.  And then I used the three magic words every corporation fears.  Class.  Action. Lawsuit.  Problem solved forever. 

I actually kind of like dealing with these things.  We all run into them, where what we need to happen conflicts with a policy.  I'm in the middle of one with BYU right now, over a chair (long story, not worth getting into).  Four rules:  1) Find That One Person who can help you, 2) Don't lose your cool.  Stay calm, polite and firm.  3) Know exactly what it is you want them to do for you, and all the reasons they should do it, and 4) Keep after them.  Persevere.  Don't give up. 

A fifth rule, too, perhaps.  Remember, the person you're talking to is just doing their job.  This isn't personal.  They have rules, and there's nothing wrong with them having rules--all companies have to set certain policies, and usually, what you want is outside their parameters.  But what's a policy for them is just an obstacle to you.  Don't quit until they give in. 


  1. Now I want to know about the chair.

  2. Yeah, tell the chair story! Also, I'm going to have to remember the magic "class action lawsuit" words for when things get really bad :)

  3. I remember reading a news article about something like this. A couple was owed money from a bank, but the bank kept finding ways of getting out of paying them just yet. Until their lawyer pointed out that according to the law, they'd delayed paying for so long that the couple could officially foreclose the bank. They had movers drive up and started loading computers from the local bank branch into a truck while they explained what was happening to the bank manager. He wrote them the check for the money they were owed right then and there, problem solved.

    1. Yeah, I read that story. The bank actually tried to foreclose on their home, despite the fact that they didn't have a mortgage; they owned the home free and clear. They sued and won, but the bank wouldn't pay the judgment. So they foreclosed on the bank! My heroes!

  4. Uncle Eric, I need to tell you about my policy story. BYU has this policy that spouses of students cannot park on campus. Annoying usually but nothing earth-shattering. Well, I was invited to a teacher conference at BYU with many other teachers. I pull up and I say, "I am here for a teacher conference". I guess because I look young, which I am, they said, "Are you the wife of a student?" I'm terrible at lying. So I said, "Yes. But I'm here for a teacher conference. See my badge? And the letter?" And they said, "I'm sorry, you can't park here." Really?? So while every other teacher got to park there, I had to walk almost a mile because *heaven forbid* I married a student and am, bytheway, working these past 3 years so that I could pay Josh's tuition out of pocket for this school.

    I loved your stories. Just wanted to add mine.

    1. Wow. What a ridiculous story. Also, totally believable--BYU never ceases to amaze me.

  5. Tucker SamuelsenJune 27, 2012 at 8:37 PM

    I'd add one addendum from my years in customer service, if I could. Make sure the policy actually IS a stupid policy first. Today I got a call from somebody who heard our alarm company was now offering a new system to new customers, and wanted us to upgrade her system for free. Sadly the answer was no, we can't unload $1000 worth of equipment to somebody mid-contract for no reason other than her neighbor getting it. She ended up talking to like 5 different people until she gave up. A policy you don't like isn't necessarily a stupid policy.

    That said, you probably don't hate the stupid policies as much as the poor guy on the other end of the phone who has to explain this to people all day. He knows it's ridiculous, and it does no good if you take it out on him.

    Great post Dad. Much love.

    1. Excellent point! Of course, that's exactly right. I completely agree--the poor guy you're talking to knows it's a dumb policy, but can't, really CAN'T help you. I really do try to stay polite. Don't always succeed.